Environment key to making a good golf hole

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Tom Fazio was standing under the giant oak tree outside the Augusta National Golf Club, pondering what appeared to be a simple question:

What makes a good golf hole?

"How much time do you have?" said Fazio, one of the leading course architects in the world. "Hours? Days?"

So many factors go into what makes a hole so appealing that Fazio said it is impossible to focus on one element. But, he said, most good golf holes seem to have at least one common thread: The environment around them.

"Look at the two most-photographed holes in golf -- the 12th at Augusta National and the 16th at Cypress Point," Fazio said. "They're both totally different environments. But it's still the environment that gives you the 'Wow!' factor.

"And, if you don't have the environment, now you have to create in. That's what Steve Wynn did in Las Vegas."

The reference was to Shadow Creek, the spectacular, man-made golf course in Las Vegas in which Wynn, the flamboyant casino owner, spent millions to sculpt a landscape of trees, lakes and waterfalls from an industrial dust bowl in the middle of the desert. Fazio designed the layout, which remains one of the most breathtaking in he country.

"There was no great environment there -- no water, no trees, nothing," Fazio said. "He said, 'Why don't we create an environment and build a golf course inside it?' So we did."

Former U.S. Open champion Jerry Pate, who has been designing courses for more than 20 years, said the terrain of the layout is probably the first factor in determining what constitutes a good golf hole. And, he added, he doesn't like to move a lot of dirt to alter the terrain.

But, when he builds courses, he doesn't think about designing a good hole as much as thinks about putting together a good layout.

"I like to get them off the tee and challenge them throughout," Pate said. "I try to build a golf course that can challenge the greatest players in the world and make it enjoyable to entertain the mid- to high-handicapper. I want everyone to have an enjoyable experience when they play the proper tees."

Jack Nicklaus, who designed the Club at Nevillewood in Collier, said modern technology has forced architects to build longer holes because the ball travels farther. But, he cautioned, longer doesn't necessarily mean better.

"I don't like to have every hole be a big hole," Nicklaus said. "I try to take the driver out of somebody's hands three or four times in a round for a big hitter. I think it really allows the Fred Funks and Gary Players of the world to compete because their strong suit has been accuracy and iron play."

(To that point, consider that three of the par 4s on the Post-Gazette's list of best holes are under 360 yards.)

Also, Nicklaus said architects have been forced to build more undulations and slopes into greens to make them more treacherous -- another way to combat length.

"I think you have to put a little more spice in your greens today to have some defense on your course," Nicklaus said. "Members will have to put up with a little bit more of that for people who play it every day ... if you have an interest in having a tournament at your course."

Only two courses on the Post-Gazette's list -- Mystic Rock and Quicksilver -- have played host to a PGA Tour or Champions Tour event.

Par 3s tend to be used as signature holes more than par 4s and par 5s because all the design elements of a par-3 hole can be featured in one photograph. As such, there are five par 3s on the Post-Gazette's list of best holes.

But Fazio, who hasn't designed a course in Western Pennsylvania but worked on the restoration at Oakmont Country Club, said he starts designing a course by first laying out the par 4s and par 5s.

"You use par 3s to get from this ravine to that ravine, or from this corner of the course to that corner," Fazio said. "They are like a link to get from this portion of the course to that portion."

All part of trying to come up with a good hole.

Mystic Rock, No. 9

Toughest Public Hole -- 476 yards, par 4

The original hole was already tough enough, but Pete Dye added a forest of trees to the right and a lake that cuts into the left side of the fairway, creating a slight dogleg effect. Throw in a severely undulating green and you have the makings of a brutal hole.

Olde Stonewall, No. 16

Prettiest Public Hole -- 474 yards, par 4

The silver tees are tucked into a boulder-framed perch that sits approximately 110 feet above the fairway, providing a stunning view of a hole that might be the best of Michael Hurdzan/Dana Frye's award-winning design.

Mystic Rock, No. 12

Best Public Par 3 Hole-- 181 yards

Pete Dye reconfigured this hole more times than a Rubik's Cube, but he finally got it right -- rocks and water wrapping around the front of the green, a shaved swale collecting any shots long left.

Oak Tree, No. 5

Best Public Par 4 Hole -- 421 yards

The hole requires a demanding tee shot and a mid- to long-iron approach, but the beauty of the hole -- a rolling, tree-lined fairway that opens majestically to a water-framed greens complex -- makes it a pleasing beast.

Mystic Rock, No. 16

Best Public Par 5 Hole -- 521 yards

There aren't many holes this spectacular anywhere, let alone Western Pennsylvania. A risk-reward par 5 that is reachable in two, but the water running the left side of the hole leaves little room for error, especially around the green.

Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com .


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